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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Ancient Central Andes by Jeffrey Quilter

The Lanzon is a temple complex that represents the best example of Chavin temple architecture.  The Chavin were a pre-Incan culture that dominated central Peru.  The site is called Chavin de Huantar.

Book Review
The Ancient Central Andes
by Jeffrey Quilter
Published December 21st, 2013

  It wasn't until I was physically IN Peru that I understood that ancient Peru is waaaaay more than just the Incas.  The Central Andes- which covers an area ranging from Ecuador to Chile covers the same amount of distance as the trip from London to Baghdad.  The geography ranges from the highest, driest desert in the world to tropical jungle, with everything in between.  The serious study of non-Incan central Andean cultures is firmly a 20th century concern, with an early period of indigenous, non-professional archeologists leading the charge, and western educated professional archeologists only showing up in recent years.

The so-called Chavin culture was an important pre-Incan civilization.
     Much of the work done in the last few decades has yet to be synthesized in a way that a non-professional can easily access, which means that The Ancient Central Andes by Jeffrey Quilter comes as a welcome addition to the Andean history shelf.  Placed in context, the Incans are merely the last flourishing of a common Weltanschauung, similar to the way that the Roman Empire was the heir to thousands of years of Mediterranean civilization.
One of the commonalities of the Central Andean cultures is sophisticated weaving.  The West only caught up in the 20h century.

   The interesting, unresolved questions about Central Andean civilization start at the beginning.  Did humans come to the region on foot or by boat?  The traditional view is that humans crossed a land bridge exposed by the smaller oceans of the last glacial maximum.  A newer perspective argues that humans made their way down the Pacific coast by boat.  Quilter seems to cautiously support this hypothesis, and the corollary hypothesis that Andean civilization spread from the sea to the mountains.

  Other scholars have argues that the first sophisticated cultures came either from a paradisaical "sweet spot" in southern Ecuador or from the Amazonian jungle.  Investigations continue but I think the sea travel hypothesis is a strong one.  One fact stood out in particular- the chile pepper- which is virtually synonymous with Mexico, actually comes from Peru.  This means that at some point someone got on a boat and took a chile pepper to Mexico.
This map shows the area controlled by the Tiwanaku and Huari, the two groups who immediately preceded the Incans.

  The major non-Incan civilizations, all named after the places they were discovered are the Chavin, the Moche, the Tiwanaku and the Wari.  The Tiwanaku and Wari immediately preceded the Incans.  Information about all four groups is still being pieced together.  Knowledge about the Wari has been especially slow in emerging because their capital was also near the capital of the violent Shining Path revolutionary group, and archeologists couldn't gain access for several decades.
Moche pottery contains several obscene motifs, a favorite being fellatio and another being anal sex.  Here, both figures are male.

   Taken in context, the Incans are less impressive, stone cutting and dynastic ambition aside.  The outline of a more-or-less common civilization emerges from the combination of archeology and history.   The high watermarks of the Chavin and Moche appear to be temple-based.  Presumably a temple based elite was able to form a loose polity.  Human sacrifice was common through out the various groups.  Weaving and pottery, corn and cocoa all characterized the larger Andean culture area.

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